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Robin and Tracy Tolhurst realized their dream of building an off-grid house in 100 Mile House, B.C., but found they weren’t able to access energy reduction incentives and rebates because many were connected to the power company.HANDOUT

It took Robin and Tracy Tolhurst several years to realize their dream of building an off-grid home.

After retiring, they were finally able to break ground on a plot of land they’d purchased over a decade prior, 30 kilometers away from 100 Mile House in British Columbia. One of their biggest building challenges was getting power to the remote area where they settled without ruining the landscape or spending a significant sum to install power lines.

“When we bought the land 13 years ago, we first approached B.C. Hydro, and the cost was going to be between $18,000 and $23,000 to put in our own hydro poles. When we started breaking ground in 2018, the cost went up to $58,000,” says Robin Tolhurst. “Plus, putting the lines where they wanted us to would have meant cutting down some of the bigger trees on our property to connect to their infrastructure.”

Like many homeowners in cities as well as in rural areas, the Tolhursts turned to solar panels to save themselves money. After installing the panels themselves, they’re now able to operate completely off-grid without sacrificing any major needs, for roughly $2,500 per year, including expenses like fuel for their backup generator, which runs on diesel.

With inflation and growing climate concerns, an increasing number of people in Canada may have experiences like the Tolhursts, where circumstances force creativity when it comes to making their homes more sustainable – both financially and environmentally.

Emissions from households and small businesses in Canada account for roughly 18 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 report from the Government of Canada. Fossil fuel combustion for space and water heating is the main culprit, accounting for 13 per cent of the total. The remaining 5 per cent is generated by electricity used for air conditioners, lighting, and appliances.

Reducing the amount of energy needed to run a residence naturally saves money, however, home upgrades to maximize efficiency can be costly, particularly now, in the midst of supply shortages and the soaring costs of daily life.

“In Nova Scotia, energy bills are often people’s highest bill,” says Janet Tobin, communications lead for Efficiency Nova Scotia, an organization that works with Nova Scotia’s sole energy provider, Nova Scotia Power, and organizations across the province to find savings for residents trying to make their homes run more efficiently.

“We surveyed 1,400 residents in 2021, and we heard from folks hoping to make upgrades in the next few years that cost is a significant barrier,” Ms. Tobin explains. “That’s why programs and rebates are so important, because they incentivize people to make those changes a priority. If someone is going to do a big retrofit, buying heat pumps, windows and doors – and other changes you can make to have a more efficient home – that all starts to add up really quickly.”

Ms. Tobin’s advice for anyone looking to make their home more efficient is to do an energy audit, where professionals assess the dwelling for opportunities to reduce energy use. It’s also the first requirement to access federal funding for climate-related home upgrades through the Canada Greener Homes Grant program, which awards up to $5,000 for retrofits that make homes more energy friendly.

But as Robin Tolhurst points out, many incentives are given in connection with power distributors across the country, so applicants need to be attached to an existing power system to receive money.

“Because we’re off-grid, which was important to us, we didn’t get any rebates or incentives. The government gives those breaks to hydro and propane gas sellers, so you have to be on grid to get any rebate, even though our home has features like triple-pane windows,” he says. “I think we should get the same as what they offer B.C. Hydro. Canada and B.C. talk about being green, but they were almost penalizing us for wanting to be off-grid.”

When Carl McDowell, president of Toronto-based Canada Waterproofers, talks to his clients about their motivations for home upgrades, climate concerns aren’t normally at the top of the list.

“Some people might mention that they feel like we’re getting more rain, but they’re more worried about how it relates specifically to their house, and then of course, how they’re going to pay for the work that needs to be done.”

A common change people in the greater Toronto area are making is separating the sewer system from their home’s waterproofing system. In many cases, flood water comes from sewers overflowing after heavy rainfall.

“Back in the 50s you’d have the pipe that goes around the house and collects the groundwater, a weeping tile, and it would connect to the sewage system. That works fine, until you have a major storm.”

There are rebates the province provides for installing backwater valves to prevent this issue. Despite incentives, Mr. McDowell says the demand for larger projects has slowed down. Big and small gigs considered, his average customer spends roughly $3,800 on his team’s services.

And when customers do elect to do extensive work, it’s to dodge even bigger expenses down the line.

“Once, if a home’s basement was unfinished and the owners had a leak once in a while, they’d let it go. A lot of people are taking care of these things now, because they know they’ll need to finish the basement for more space eventually. It’s much cheaper to spend the money on the current space than to have to find a new one later on.”

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